Sixty two years ago Jackie Robinson started a fight that benefited everyone in American society and much of the world. You can argue that Robinson’s breakthrough in baseball was as crucial as most points in the civil rights movement. Like Jesse Owens before him, Jackie Robinson was a quiet, honorable man on the field, and that made it hard for fans to dislike him (though most found ways, for a long time). But today, the thing this great man fought for, baseball, is no longer desirable in this country.
Jackie would not be disappointed in African Americans specifically, but everyone when it comes to baseball. Baseball has become somewhat of an elitist game. The age of the Sunday pickup game has given way to the tournament weekend in Tennessee, and much of the fun has gone with it.
You must dig deeper to find the cause. The lack of freedom of the American child has a lot to do with it. Many people seem to think their kids are freer today than they ever were, but think a little harder. Kids today don’t leave the house. They play videogames or find kids with funny names on facebook. When kids do venture out into the great unknown it is for a formal sports practice or a scheduled playdate.
Now, I hate to sound all Wilford Brimley on you here, but when I was younger (born in ’85, not that long ago) we were barely allowed in the house. There is a general fear among parents of child abduction or sexual predators and whatnot, which their child may have a better chance of finding online.
There are no longer really public fields as well. Sure, they exist, but there is always some type of practice going on. Baseball training has become work.
How many kids play an instrument when they are younger? In my region at least half, but within a couple of years most of them quit. Why? Because it is work. All they see is notes, and there is not much fun in that. Baseball has become somewhat of the same experience.
Also, Compared to other sports, baseball is difficult to pick up. From one of my top 5 films, “It’s the hard that makes it great,” but its also the hard that makes kids quit after a year or so and pick up soccer. I will get to soccer in another article.
AAU has replaced any local pride a kid had in his youth and Legion teams. AAU has also priced out much of the best athletes. It provides the best exposure for players and therefore gives kids who can’t afford it a hopeless feeling, and sets their future in the sport in stone.
In Baseball today, the coaches or scouts don’t come to you, you have to go to them, and in many cases, you must pay for this, too. It is bad enough the bats cost three hundred bucks, a decent glove $150, and new spikes $75. A season of baseball could easily cost a 13-yr old kid $5 grand these days.
I would also argue that the baseball in Robinson’s day was better. Many argue that the players are faster, stronger, and in better shape, but does that make for better baseball? For a while, homeruns made us forget what a hit and run, double steal, and sacrifice bunts were. Through the nineties, baseball players were 6-4, 220 lb weight lifters with very little athletic ability. Look at Joe Dimaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, and Jackie. These guys were great athletes who got good at baseball playing with their friends. Not in some academy.
Others argue that the best players are produced in academies. The academies they speak of are in the Dominican Republic, though. My response to them is that the alternative to the academy there is not pretty, and they understand the spirit of baseball because of that. Baseball, a game, can get them out of poverty. That is how baseball was for a long time here.
But, alas, the sandlot has made way for the state of the art practice batting cages for kids 10-12 to hone their skills with video to show them the flaws in their changeup grip. It is good to see smaller guys making their way in the MLB. And its good to see that only a few guys put up massive home run numbers last year. Maybe the game won’t scare off as many kids.
As the WBC showed us, baseball is far better in other countries. Baseball is becoming a sport where all Americans are the minority.